part 2 of 2
But it was a certain group of sixth-grade boys who gave Trost the most trouble. On January 12, a week after the West Side Story incident, Trost was once again having a hard time making himself heard.
One of the loudest kids was a boy he'd been warned about, Alex, who was leading his friends in what seemed to be a screaming contest. Exasperated from trying to yell over the din, Trost pulled Alex aside and told him to get a handle on his "out of control" behavior.
Trost's lecture had little effect. The next day Alex, his friend Eric and several other boys were back at it. Trost demanded that Alex sit down and stop "bouncing off the walls." Alex quieted down. He stood in back for the rest of the period, refusing to participate and following his teacher's every move with a cold stare.
The boy's rowdiness had angered him, but Trost found this new response chilling. There was a lot of anger in that stare, and he wondered at its source. This kid is over the edge, he thought. After class Trost saw Alex's faculty advisor in the hallway and told her about the incident.
"You better go talk to Buffy and get this documented," the advisor said, "before this blows into something else."
Frightened by the implication, he turned and walked to Berger's office, where he repeated the story. She told him to write down what had happened and give his summary to the advisor to place in Alex's file.
Trost wrote the memorandum that day. Noting that Alex had "stared daggers" for the rest of the day's class, he concluded, "This may become a problem, so I wanted you to know ahead of time."
It was a Thursday, and the week ended uneventfully. So early the next week, when Berger approached and asked if he would come to her office when he got a chance, Trost was not alarmed; he thought she was just checking in to see how he was progressing with the behavioral problems of some of his students. But warning bells began to sound when Berger closed the door and said, "I have to talk to you about something I'm uncomfortable with."
Eric was accusing Trost of having "grabbed his butt," she said. And Alex claimed to have witnessed the incident.
At some point in the conversation, Larry Dougherty, Graland's headmaster, entered the room. He assured Trost that they were working with the parents to get to the bottom of the accusations. The parents wanted to keep the whole thing "under wraps," he said.
However, Dougherty continued, the school was required to report such an accusation to the state's Department of Social Services. And because the incident was alleged to have occurred at a school, the department was required by Colorado law to ask the police to investigate.
Trost shook his head, dazed. It wasn't true, he said. He hadn't touched the boy. Berger, who noted that she had been in the classroom on the day in question and had not seen such an incident, said she would personally interview the two students.
Trost asked if he could have the rest of the day off--there was no way he could handle going back to class. The administrators nodded. Yes, that was probably the best thing.
Instead of going home to his apartment, Trost drove over to the Watermans' and screamed out his story. "You won't believe what I'm being accused of," he told them. After seventeen exemplary years as a teacher, he couldn't imagine a more heinous charge than molesting a child.
As Trost ranted and paced and then began to cry, Marcus Waterman thought the accusation was the most ridiculous thing he had ever heard. J.B., of all people. He had known his friend for fifteen years. He knew his children, even some of his students--the man loved kids and would never do anything to hurt them.
When Trost finally calmed down, he asked his friends if they thought he should just resign and walk away. They convinced him to stick it out and fight--not just for his own sake, but also to prove that kids couldn't get away with this.
Trost returned to school the next day, convinced the allegations would soon be exposed as nothing but lies. Over the next few days he kept calling the dean of the faculty to see if there was any word regarding the investigation. Again he was assured that the administration was working with the parents. "Fine," Trost told her. "Let's get together and talk and see if we can get to the bottom of this." But it turned out the parents didn't want to meet with him.
Finally, Trost was called into Dougherty's office. Berger was there, too, with notes she had made during her January 20 interviews with the boys.
According to those notes, Eric acknowledged that he, Alex and two other friends had been talking in class on the day in question. He said Trost had asked him to calm down and "grabbed his shoulder and ran his hand down his back," then grabbed his butt. "Not a pinch, but a grab--a quick grab," Eric had told Berger.
"Eric doesn't think that teachers should touch kids in a way that makes them feel uncomfortable," she'd written. Eric had talked to his mother that night, he said, and she'd thought they should contact school officials. When his father returned from an out-of-town trip, however, he suggested that Trost's actions might have been misinterpreted and what Eric had felt was nothing more than a good-natured pat on the bottom. He didn't think it was worth pursuing.
Eric's mother did. The boy assured Berger that it was not a pat he'd felt. "He squeezed me," he told her.
Judging from Berger's notes of her interview with Alex, there was some discrepancy between the two boys' stories. Alex said the incident had happened after class. Trost had told them that they needed to concentrate more and that he was going to talk to their advisors. As the two boys walked out of the classroom, Alex told Berger, Trost placed one hand on Eric's left shoulder and his other on Alex's right shoulder.
According to what Alex told Berger, Trost then squeezed his shoulder and ran his hand down his back. "I just got a bad feeling about it," he said. And despite the teacher being between the two boys, he said he was able to see "Mr. Trost squeeze [a little] Eric's rear end."
Alex told Berger he hadn't discussed the incident with anyone but Eric "because he was trying to put it behind him."
Now Dougherty told Trost that the boys' parents had gone to the police to file a criminal complaint. The school had no choice but to suspend him, with pay, until the investigation was complete. Trost was to go home and wait for the police to call.
Trost waited at home for five days with no word. He felt like his life would never be the same--his career, his reputation, were swirling down the drain. He imagined that the school's rumor mill was working overtime. Trost the pervert. Trost the child molester. He tried to recall something he might have done that the boys could have misinterpreted. But there was nothing. It never happened.
He was afraid to leave his apartment. He couldn't sleep and felt sick to his stomach. He just sat around watching soap operas and talk shows until they depressed him too much.
The Watermans worried about their friend's state of mind. They recommended that he contact John Delos Zimmermann, a former deputy district attorney for Denver and Adams counties, as well as a former assistant attorney general.
At first, Zimmermann wasn't sure what to make of Trost. He seemed anxious and nervous, and the lawyer spent a good deal of time trying to calm him down so that he could tell his story. Zimmerman had worked this sort of case from both sides and had heard plenty of earnest stories from defendants who were guilty as hell. He went over and over Trost's account, looking for details that might indicate the man was lying.
He finally concluded that Trost was innocent.
On the afternoon of the fifth day, Trost's telephone rang. It was a detective with the Denver Police Department. He wanted to know if Trost was willing to come down to the station and talk.
Trost agreed. The next morning, accompanied by Zimmermann, he drove to the police station. He was asked if he would take a lie-detector test; he said yes. But the test was never administered.
Instead, the detective pressed him--hard. Was he sure he hadn't touched the boy in some way that might have been misconstrued? No, Trost replied, he hadn't touched the boy at all. The detective asked him to write down his version of the boys' behavior and all the incidents leading up to the accusations.
While Trost was writing, Zimmermann talked to the detective. The cop said he had talked to the kids and other witnesses. He didn't think there was a case, he told the lawyer; the kids seemed to be "playing some games." He'd have to present his report to the district attorney's office, the detective said, but providing the case didn't wind up with some gung-ho prosecutor bent on nailing a teacher to the wall, he figured the charges would be dropped.
The detective read Trost's statement. Then he got up, saying he was going to walk downstairs to talk to a district attorney. He asked Trost to wait. A few minutes later the detective returned. He would have to call Trost in the morning with a decision. In the meantime, he could go home.
Trost returned to his apartment, on the verge of tears. What if he was sent to prison for something he didn't do? He didn't think he could take it.
Fortunately, he didn't have to try to make it through another sleepless night. Three hours later the detective called. The district attorney had agreed there was no case; no charges would be filed. They would let the school know their decision and recommend that Trost be reinstated.
A short time later, Dougherty called. The school was so happy that things had turned out all right in the end, he told Trost, and they wanted him to come back the next week.
Trost had a hard time believing what he was hearing. Suddenly, it was to be as though nothing had happened. He wanted to say, Fuck you all. You left me out there to hang. But instead, he said he would return. He wasn't going to let those spoiled little brats, their parents or the gutless school administrators win. He'd return with his head held high and start rebuilding his reputation.
On February 7, the day before Trost was due back at Graland, Dougherty penned two letters: one addressed to all faculty and staff and the other to the sixth-grade parents.
In the letter to the faculty regarding "my investigation of the matter with J.B. Trost," Dougherty wrote: "In collaboration with the students' parents and after reviewing the investigation of the police department and based on our independent review, I have concluded that there was basically a misunderstanding in this matter, and that J.B. has been cleared of these allegations.
"If any parents ask you questions about this matter...you will indicate confidence in the process, that you felt it was fair and that his due process rights have been protected. It is very important that we remain sensitive to the students. Clearly, there was some misunderstanding on their part for them to feel as concerned as they did. Because of their feelings and perceptions, they did the appropriate thing in discussing this with their parents and a teacher."
In his letter to the parents, Dougherty reiterated that the police had concluded "there was no evidence that Mr. Trost had done anything illegal or inappropriate." The students had "misperceived and misunderstood any actions of Mr. Trost," he wrote. "Teachers will be protected from allegations based on misunderstandings, misperceptions or misrepresentations...The school, the teacher, and a child's family can work together to ensure that errors or misunderstandings are addressed and that they aren't repeated in the future."
Noting that some children might have "come home with stories and rumors" about the incident, Dougherty suggested that parents discuss the matter within their families and convey that the two boys had done the right thing by reporting their concerns.
Trost would be returning to Graland, Dougherty concluded, "and his classes will be regularly monitored."
When he saw the letters, Trost was outraged. There was no misperception or misunderstanding of the incident: It had never happened. He had wanted to meet with the parents to work it out before the police were involved, but they wouldn't see him. And the school, through its headmaster, seemed more interested in making sure the boys got pats on the back for reporting their teacher--and concocting a lie in the process--than with protecting him from false allegations.
It was bullshit. These kids had made up a story because they didn't like the way he had tried to bring some order to his class; then the school had fed him to the wolves. Fortunately, he had documented his troubles with Alex and the boys had not gotten their stories straight--otherwise, he might be sitting in jail.
Returning to Graland was a miserable experience. The fifth-grade class told Trost they'd heard he had left the school because he had AIDS. Sixth-graders wanted to know about the rumors that he had been pinching little boys on their rear ends.
Even the faculty gave him a lukewarm reception. A few teachers he'd thought of as friends told him they felt bad about what had happened, but they avoided talking to him after that. He caught others giving him funny looks. When, at a teachers' meeting, he suggested the school sponsor a workshop about teachers' legal rights in such matters, an older woman who'd been at Graland for many years exclaimed, "I'm tired of hearing about this. Let's move on. PLEASE." The matter was dropped.
Trost had been back only a few days when Berger told him the parents of Alex and Eric, who'd both remained out of school, wanted to meet with him. He didn't want to: He neither trusted nor liked these children. In fact, he was having a difficult time liking any children. Still, he wanted to get on with his life, he told Berger, and if these meetings would bring some sort of closure to the whole affair, then he'd suffer through them. "But I don't deal well with untruths," he warned her. "If I have to say anything other than `You lied,' I don't think I could handle it."
He met first with Eric and his mother. Sweet, blond, blue-eyed Eric sat through the conversation with his fingers stuck in his mouth and never said a word. His mother explained that the family believed there must have been some misunderstanding.
"My expectations are that you will not have any physical contact with Eric," she said. "And Eric, you will be expected to do what you are told in class." Trost wanted to scream that he had never touched her son. But he and the boy both simply nodded. Trost just wanted it to be over and the kid out of his sight.
The second meeting, with Alex and his mother, went pretty much the same way. The boy didn't say anything; his mother sat behind him, patting him on the shoulder. She said she hoped there would be no hard feelings. She asked Alex to shake hands with his teacher. They shook and then it was over. Or so Trost thought.
But it wasn't over, of course. There were still looks from some teachers, and the easy camaraderie he'd had with others was lost. When the two boys returned to class, their behavior was worse than ever. Yet now Trost was afraid to say anything at all. Who knew what these kids would think up next?
He had just about made up his mind to leave the school when he finally heard what had happened to Lincoln Jackson.
An excellent athlete who had played soccer with teams in Austria and Scotland, Lincoln Jackson had been hired by Graland as a physical education instructor. He had a good reputation as a teacher.
On February 22, 1993, Berger had asked Jackson to supervise a group of four fifth-grade boys on the playing field at recess after she noticed that the boys were slapping a soccer ball out of each other's hands and wrestling. Their game resembled rugby more than soccer, and she was concerned the horseplay was getting too rough.
Jackson approached the boys and informed them the game would be "soccer or nothing." The four boys agreed to play opposite Jackson. The action that followed resulted in Jackson being fired by the school--and sued by the parents of two of the boys.
According to court records, the boys claimed Jackson grabbed one by his shirt and "flipped him onto his back" so that the ten-year-old struck his head on the ground. The boy complained but returned to the game. A short time later a second boy scored a goal against Jackson. The teacher became enraged and grabbed him by the ankle, then dropped him on his head, the boys said.
Jackson then twisted a third boy's arm behind his back and kicked a fourth, according to the boys.
But Berger's account of the playground incident, which she wrote that same day, says nothing about Jackson becoming angry. Instead, she said, it looked like one boy was trying to tackle Jackson after he made the goal, and as his foot "came up in the air, Linc grabbed it or his ankle and flipped [him] up and dropped him on the ground."
The boy, she wrote, got up slowly and came over to her. As she was trying to comfort him, another boy came over and said that "Mr. Jackson had grabbed him by the arm and would not let him go."
Recess was over, so Berger told the children to go back inside. She asked Jackson to report to her office. But when she walked into the hallway, all four boys were talking to another teacher, "crying and screaming about what had happened."
Berger had the boys go to her office and paged Dougherty. When the headmaster arrived, he and Berger listened to their stories and then "reassured the boys that what happened was inappropriate and not their fault in any way."
Jackson was taken to another office, where he was told the boys' stories. He contradicted their accounts but said he was sorry and asked if he should apologize. Instead, Dougherty told him to leave the campus immediately and, according to Berger's notes, "that he wasn't sure if Linc could ever return to Graland." Jackson was fired soon after.
Jackson's release threw the school into turmoil. Some of the boys had been in trouble before, and several members of the faculty complained that administrators had used Jackson as a scapegoat rather than anger the people who held the purse strings.
Parents of two of the boys complained that their sons were the targets of faculty and student criticism. They became even angrier when Dougherty told them the school wouldn't report the incident to the police since Jackson was no longer at Graland.
The parents went to the police themselves. Although the Denver Police Department investigated the allegations, the district attorney's office initially declined to prosecute Jackson. But the parents persisted, and charges were eventually brought, only to be dismissed because the delay violated Jackson's constitutional right to a speedy trial. District Attorney Bill Ritter wrote a letter to Graland officials admonishing the school for failing to report the incident immediately as required by law, but also noting that he didn't believe the school's failure to do so had hurt the investigation.
Last fall, just months before Trost was hired, parents of two of the boys filed a civil suit against Jackson, Berger and Graland Country Day School.
In his defense, Jackson said that the game got perhaps a bit rougher than he intended, but blamed that on the boys' unwillingness to follow the rules. To bolster this argument, Jackson's attorneys asked Robert L. McGee, the chairman of the Colorado Amateur Soccer League since 1983 and a noted college player and coach, to review the incident. Applying the rules of soccer to the playground game, McGee determined that the boys' conduct was primarily responsible for their injuries.
In the suit, one set of parents claimed their son, who had transferred to another school, was suffering from "physical pain and emotional anguish, a loss of enjoyment of life, a loss of his good name, a loss of time and impairment of his earning capacity"; a psychologist said the boy also suffered from Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome. As a result of a kick to his knee, the other parents contended, their son "was required to obtain medical and psychological care and treatment and will continue to do so in the future."
How to protect both students and teachers from each other is a growing concern. Currently, Colorado's child protection laws are weighed toward the child under the assumption that the accused is guilty until proven otherwise, according to Greg Lawler, an attorney with the Colorado Education Association who specializes in child abuse cases. The CEA represents about 70 percent of the state's public-school teachers.
When he first began working for the CEA eight years ago, Lawler says, charges of child abuse--physical or sexual--against teachers occupied about one-third of his time. Today it's a full-time job, with a caseload of fifty to seventy cases a year.
Lawler's statistics indicate that 90 percent of those cases are unfounded. Some stem from mistaken interpretations by students, he says; because sexual abuse has become such a hot topic and students repeatedly hear about "good touches and bad touches" from parents, counselors and school officials, they may automatically conclude that any touch is sexual in nature.
While some allegations against teachers are misunderstandings, Lawler says, as much as two-thirds of the cases result from a student trying to get even with a teacher for discipline problems or because the student simply doesn't like the teacher. "Kids have learned to use the system," he says. "I have cases where kids from high school right down to elementary school have threatened to sue teachers."
Even if the allegations prove false, the damage is done. "It's absolutely devastating to someone who got into teaching because they care about kids," Lawler says. "There's the publicity. Then they have to deal with the cops, probably for the first time in their lives. They're suspended--and for most teachers, work is where their friends are, so they're also isolated.
"One day, everything's going along fine, then the next day their careers--the place where they've spent the past ten or fifteen years of their lives--are at stake, their reputations are shot and they may be fighting for their freedom."
Lawler's statistics indicate that the people most at risk are not the primary teachers who spend hours each day with their students and therefore have more opportunity to work out their differences with the children. The teachers most at risk, he says, are those who teach specialty classes to large numbers of students for short periods of time: teachers who teach shop, physical education...music.
Even when teachers are cleared officially, the allegations may continue to haunt them. The Colorado Department of Social Services is not bound by decisions made at the district or county-court level, and the majority of the teachers accused of crimes against children wind up with their names on the state Central Registry of Child Protection--whether or not they've actually been charged.
An administrator in the public system, Julie Fairley says the issues raised in the Trost case affect all schools. "We have to protect the children," she says. "But when someone violates the spirit of child protection laws, or cries `wolf,' so to speak, innocent people can be hurt. And teachers have very little protection.
"I would never want to see the laws changed so that there are fewer protections for children. But I think that there should be consequences for those who use the law maliciously or for their own personal vendettas."
According to Lawler, there are laws on the books under which parents and students who make false allegations could be prosecuted. But to his knowledge, no such case has ever been pursued.
Last week, after pleading guilty to sexual assault on a minor, teacher David White was sentenced to ninety days in jail and ten years' probation. He cannot teach, use drugs or alcohol or be around children under the age of eighteen, and he must continue therapy, perform 400 hours of community service and pay nearly $5,000 in court costs.
The lawsuit against Lincoln Jackson, Buffy Berger and Graland Country Day School is still pending. Jackson, who is now teaching at another school, reached a settlement with Graland this spring for his dismissal; the terms of the settlement are not public. None of the parties involved in that lawsuit were willing to discuss it on the record.
Nor is anyone involved in Trost's case, including the two students and their parents, except for Trost himself. "I have been asked to refer all questions to Larry Dougherty," says Berger.
"It would be inappropriate for me to discuss anything regarding former employees or students," says Dougherty.
Off the record, several Graland teachers say they have been warned not to talk to the press about either case.
It came as no surprise to J.B. Trost that the boys who accused Jackson were part of the same class that caused so many problems the next year. One teacher told Trost that one of the students who later accused him had been overheard talking on the day of that ill-fated soccer game. "That should get him fired," the boy had said.
A week after he met with the two boys and their mothers, Trost decided to leave teaching--this time forever. "I can't do this anymore," he told Berger. "I don't want to end up in a police station again just because some kid decides he doesn't like me."
Since Trost left Graland, he has received several letters of support and condolence from Graland students.
Ninth-grader Jennifer Person wrote: "It must have taken much courage to pull through everything that has happened to you in the past months. You have touched so many people's lives while you were here. I know you have given me a new confidence in singing that I had never gotten from any of my other music teachers...You have been my favorite by far. You will be deeply missed by myself and the rest in the 9th grade."
"I was, as were many of my classmates, very sorry to hear that you were leaving Graland. I must say that I am ashamed and very sorry for the student who accused you wrongly," wrote ninth-grader Ali Waggner. "You should know, however, that you are an exceptional music teacher...the best Graland ever had. I want to say thanks...I hope someday that you can teach again."
But Trost says he never will. He worries that his name remains on the state registry; he has formally requested that it be removed. The letters from students who appreciated his help temper some of the anger. And when he is on the stage, he can forget--at least for a few hours.
Yet so many little things remind him. When he sees a car with a bumper sticker that reads, "Believe the children," he has to fight the urge to turn his car into a battering ram.
Children do lie, and he knows it. They lie to get what they want. And when they are caught, they face no consequences.
"I don't think these kids were ever made to realize the seriousness of what they accused me of, of how badly I was hurt," he says. "The kids were ten feet tall, and I counted for absolutely nothing. Seventeen years of teaching...all that I had ever put into it...all the good memories...poof, gone."
But one particularly chilling memory of his tenure at Graland still haunts him. To Trost, it speaks volumes about who is in charge at that school.
On his last day, he was standing in the hallway when the little girl who told him Graland wasn't a penitentiary came skipping down the hall. She pulled up short when she spotted Trost.
In her pretty dress, she looked like every parent's version of the old nursery rhyme--all sugar and spice and everything nice.
"Well, HELLO, Mr. Trost," she said, smiling sweetly. Then she cocked her head to one side and a sly grin emerged as she emphatically said, "GOODBYE, Mr. Trost," and skipped past where he stood and out the door of the school.
end of part 2
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